Jewish Immigration

Jewish Immigration

Before the 19th century very few European Jews emigrated to America. It was estimated that in 1840 the Jewish population was around 15,000. In the 1850s an increasing number of German Jews began arriving in the United States. This included several who became successful in business such as Joseph Seligman (banking), Solomon Loeb (banking), August Belmont (banking), Isidor Straus (department stores), Paul Warburg (banking), Jacob Schiff (banking) and Otto Kahn (banking). A survey in 1890 revealed that about a half of the German Jewish population in the United States were in business.

Issac Meyer Wise, who arrived from Germany in 1846, founded the paper The Israelite and the Hebrew Union College for the training of rabbis. Other important religious figures that arrived at this time included David Einhorn (1809-1879), Samuel Adler (1809-1891) and Bernhard Felsenthal (1822-1908). By 1880 there were 270 synagogues in the United States.

After the assassination of Alexander II in 1881 there was a wave of pogroms in southern Russia against the Jewish community. This led to a large increase in Jews leaving Russia. Of these, more than 90 per cent settled in the United States, the country that was now regarded as their goldene medine (golden land). These arrivals were not always welcomed by Jews already in America who feared that they might stimulate an increase in anti-Semitism. Joseph Seligman, the highly successful banker, later recalled how he was refused accommodation in hotels which previously had accepted him.

Research suggests that over two-thirds of the Jews settled in New York, Chicago, Boston and Pennsylvania. Most were unskilled and were forced to accept low-paid jobs in factories and mines. They became especially prominant in the rapidly expanding garment industry. The long hours, low wages and insanitary conditions in this industry gave it the name "sweated labour". Sidney Hillman became the leading trade union leader in the garment industry and eventually became president of the Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America (ACWA).

Large numbers of Russians settled in the Lower East Side of New York. One trade union activist, Abraham Cahan, emerged as the leader of this group and in 1897 Cahan founded the Jewish Daily Forward and turned it into a mass-circulation daily. Cahan played a role in persuading a large number of Jews to join the American Socialist Party. Others, such as Emma Goldman, Alexander Berkman, Senya Fleshin and Mollie Steimer, became involved in the emerging anarchist movement.

There were several very important books written about Russian immigrant life during this period. This included Yekl, a Tale of the New York Ghetto (1896) by Abraham Cahan and the The Promised Land (1912) by Mary Antin.

Russian immigrants also contributed a great deal to the development of science and industry. Important figures included the aircraft engineers, Igor Sikorsky and Alexander de Seversky, the biologist, Selman Waksman and the pioneer in the development of television, Vladimir Zworykin.

In 1919 Woodrow Wilson appointed A. Mitchell Palmeras his attorney general. Worried by the revolution that had taken place in Russia in 1917, Palmer became convinced that Communist agents were planning to overthrow the American government. Palmer recruited John Edgar Hoover as his special assistant and together they used the Espionage Act (1917) and the Sedition Act (1918) to launch a campaign against radicals and left-wing organizations.

A. Mitchell Palmer claimed that Communist agents from Russia were planning to overthrow the American government. On 7th November, 1919, the second anniversary of the Russian Revolution, over 10,000 suspected communists and anarchists were arrested in what became known as the Palmer Raids. Palmer and Hoover found no evidence of a proposed revolution but large number of these suspects were held without trial for a long time. The vast majority were eventually released but 248 other people were deported to Russia. This included a large number of Jews including Emma Goldman, Alexander Berkman and Mollie Steimer.

Persecution of Jews by the Nazis in Germany in the 1930s once again increased a desire to emigrate to the United States. Arrivals included Albert Einstein, Alfred Adler, Edward Teller, Karen Horney, Erich Fromm, Berthold Brecht, Kurt Weill and Hans Eisler.

In 1880 the Jewish population of the United States was about 250,000. Over the next forty years more than two million eastern European Jews - about one-third of the entire Jewish population there - emigrated to the United States.

19th Century engraving of a Jewish Progom
19th Century engraving of a Jewish Progom
© , September 1997 - April 2014

Primary Sources

(1) Mary Antin, The Promised Land (1912)

The Gentiles used to wonder at us because we cared so much about religious things about food and Sabbath and teaching the children Hebrew. They were angry with us for our obstinacy, as they called it, and mocked us and ridiculed the most sacred things. There were wise Gentiles who understood. These were educated people, like Fedora Pavlovna, who made friends with their Jewish neighbors. They were always respectful and openly admired some of our ways. But most of the Gentiles were ignorant. There was one thing, however, the Gentiles always understood, and that was money. They would take any kind of bribe, at any time. They expected it. Peace cost so much a year, in Polotzk. If you did not keep on good terms with your Gentile neighbors, they had a hundred ways of molesting you. If you chased their pigs when they came rooting up your garden, or objected to their children maltreating your children, they might complain against you to the police, stuffing their case with false accusations and false witnesses. If you had not made friends with the police, the case might go to court; and there you lost before the trial was called unless the judge had reason to befriend you.

The czar was always sending us commands - you shall not do this and you shall not do that - till there was very little left that we might do, except pay tribute and die. One positive command he gave us: You shall love and honor your emperor. In every congregation a prayer must be said for the czar's health, or the chief of police would close the synagogue. On a royal birthday every house must fly a flag, or the owner would be dragged to a police station and be fined twenty-five rubles. A decrepit old woman, who lived all alone in a tumble-down shanty, supported by the charity of the neighborhood, crossed her paralyzed hands one day when flags were ordered up, and waited for her doom, because she had no flag. The vigilant policeman kicked the door open with his great boot, took the last pillow from the bed, sold it, and hoisted a flag above the rotten roof.

The czar always got his dues, no matter if it ruined a family. There was a poor locksmith who owed the czar three hundred rubles, because his brother had escaped from Russia before serving his time in the army. There was no such fine for Gentiles, only for Jews; and the whole family was liable. Now the locksmith never could have so much money, and he had no valuables to pawn. The police came and attached his household goods, everything he had, including his bride's trousseau; and the sale of the goods brought thirty-five rubles. After a year's time the police came again, looking for the balance of the czar's dues. They put their seal on everything they found.

There was one public school for boys, and one for girls, but Jewish children were admitted in limited numbers - only ten to a hundred; and even the lucky ones had their troubles. First, you had to have a tutor at home, who prepared you and talked all the time about the examination you would have to pass, till you were scared. You heard on all sides that the brightest Jewish children were turned down if the examining officers did not like the turn of their noses. You went up to be examined with the other Jewish children, your heart heavy about that matter of your nose. There was a special examination for the Jewish candidates, of course: a nine-year-old Jewish child had to answer questions that a thirteen-year-old Gentile was hardly expected to answer. But that did not matter so much; you had been prepared for the thirteen-year-old test. You found the questions quite easy. You wrote your answers triumphantly - and you received a low rating, and there was no appeal.

I used to stand in the doorway of my father's store munching an apple that did not taste good any more, and watch the pupils going home from school in twos and threes; the girls in neat brown dresses and black aprons and little stiff hats, the boys in trim uniforms with many buttons. They had ever so many books in the satchels on their backs. They would take them out at home, and read and write, and learn all sorts of interesting things. They looked to me like beings from another world than mine. But those whom I envied had their troubles, as I often heard. Their school life was one struggle against injustice from instructors, spiteful treatment from fellow students, and insults from everybody. They were rejected at the universities, where they were admitted in the ratio of three Jews to a hundred Gentiles, under the same debarring entrance conditions as at the high school: especially rigorous examinations, dishonest marking, or arbitrary rulings without disguise. No, the czar did not want us in the schools.

(2) In her book Promised Land, Mary Antin described what it was like to be Jewish in Russia during the 1880s.

I remember a time when I thought a pogrom had broken out in our street, and I wonder that I did not die of fear. It was some Christian holiday, and we had been warned by the police to keep indoors. Gates were locked; shutters were barred. Fearful and yet curious, we looked through the cracks in the shutters. We saw a procession of peasants and townspeople, led by priests, carrying crosses and banners and images. We lived in fear till the end of the day, knowing that the least disturbance might start a riot, and a riot led to a pogrom.

(3) In an article in The American Magazine , Allen Foreman described the tenement buildings in the Jewish quarter of Lower East Side, New York (November, 1888)

They are great prison-like structures of brick, with narrow doors and windows, cramped passages and steep rickety stairs. In case of fire they would be death-traps, for it would be impossible for the occupants of the crowded rooms to escape by the narrow stairways, and the flimsy fire-escapes so laden with broken furniture, bales and boxes that they would be worse than useless. In the hot summer months these fire-escape balconies are used as sleeping-rooms by the poor wretches who are fortunate enough to have windows opening upon them.

(4) Jacob Riis, How the Other Half Lives (1890)

The homes of the Hebrew quarter are its workshops also. You are made fully aware of it before you have travelled the length of a single block in any of these East End streets, by the whirr of a thousand sewing-machines, worked at high pressure from earliest dawn until mind and muscle give out together. Every member of the family, from the youngest to to the oldest, bears a hand, shut in the qualmy rooms, where meals are cooked and clothing washed and dried besides, the live-long day. It is not unusual to find a dozen persons - men, women and children - at work in a single room.

(5) (5) New York Hebrew Standard (15th June, 1894)

The thoroughly acclimated American Jew stands apart from the seething mass of Jewish immigrants and looks upon them as in a stage of development pitifully low. He has no religious, social or intellectual sympathies with them. He is closer to the Christian sentiment around him than to the Judaism of these miserable darkened Hebrews.

(6) Jane Addams, Hull House Maps and Papers (1895)

No trades are so overcrowded as the sewing-trades; for the needle has ever been the refuge of the unskilled woman. The wages paid throughout the manufacture of clothing are less than those in any other trade. The residents of Hull House have carefully investigated many cases, and are ready to assert that the Italian widow who finishes the cheapest goods, although she sews from six in the morning until eleven at night, can only get enough to keep her children clothed and fed; while for her rent and fuel she must always depend upon charity or the hospitality of her countrymen.

If the American sewing-woman, supporting herself alone, lives on bread and butter and tea, she finds a Bohemian woman next door whose diet of black bread and coffee enables her to undercut. She competes with a wife who is eager to have home finishing that she may add something to the family comfort; or with a daughter who takes it that she may buy a wedding outfit.

The Hebrew tailor, the man with a family to support, who, but for this competition of unskilled women and girls, might earn a wage upon which a family could subsist, is obliged, in order to support them at all, to put his little children at work as soon as they can sew buttons.

The mother who sews on a gross of buttons for seven cents, in order to buy a blue ribbon with which to tie up her little daughter's hair, or the mother who finishes a dozen vests for five cents, with which to buy her children a loaf of bread, commits unwittingly a crime against her fellow-workers, although our hearts may thrill with admiration for her heroism, and ache with pity over her misery.

(7) Arnold Bennett decribed living conditions in Lower East Side in his book Your United States (1912).

It was a custom among all the immigrants to have boarders. A family with two children rents an apartment of three rooms and then goes ahead and rents out the kitchen and the living room to two or three boarders. Sometimes there would be shifts, people would sleep in the daytime, and the same place would be used by somebody else at night.